As someone who doesn’t have a military background and has never personally known anyone who’s served in active duty, I’ve always admired our troops and their sacrifices from afar.  I’ve often heard and read that they weren’t getting the care they needed for health issues like PTSD, chronic pain, traumatic brain injuries, and more.  This always bothered me, but I concluded there was nothing I could do about it, so I never looked into the matter any further.  But recently, I found out things are even worse than I could’ve imagined.

It all started early one morning when I received a message from a Twitter friend of mine, who happens to be an active duty member of the Air Force.  He’s served in Saudi Arabia, Qatar,  Bahrain, and  Kuwait.  I assumed he remembered that I have a background in science and medicine from our previous conversations, because in a message he asked me if I had ever read about the connection between a wide range of symptoms and diseases our veterans have been experiencing after returning home from deployment, and their chronic and acute exposure to burn pits in the Middle East. I told him I hadn’t, in fact I had never even heard about the burn pits until he asked me about them, and had no idea what they were.  They certainly have never made the national news.  So I began to do some research on the subject, and what I found was both disturbing and infuriating.

For those who aren’t familiar with the issue and might be wondering what burn pits are and why they matter, let me give you a brief summary of it, and then I’ll explain why it’s a matter of huge significance for our veterans that will have big consequences for decades to come.  After we started the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our military realized we needed to find a means of disposing of all the waste that accumulated from the battles and the day to day activities of the soldiers.  So they asked contractors to create pits in the ground (hence the name ‘burn pits’) that they could dump all of their trash and disposable items into, and then burn them in the open air instead of burning them in incinerators, which is more expensive, but much safer in terms of public health.

They burned almost anything you can think of in those pits, including:  plastics, batteries, appliances, medicine, dead animals, weapons, vehicles, and even human body parts, with jet fuel being used as an accelerant to speed up the process.  Many times the pits were located directly next to the living quarters of our troops, who had no choice but to inhale the hundreds of chemicals and toxic fumes that were being given off almost nonstop for days on end.

In every one of the countries he was stationed at, my friend in the Air Force lived near a burn pit. He also was quite healthy before his exposure to the toxic fumes from the pits, particularly the one in Kuwait, which was very close to where he stayed.  But afterwards, he became ill, and now has a whole host of health issues he never had before in his life, including severe allergies, extremely low testosterone and vitamin D levels, and joint pain.  He is just one of many soldiers all over the country who are dealing with these health problems after being exposed to the burn pits.

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For starters, I should note that there haven’t been many studies on the negative health effects of the compounds from these burn pits on soldiers, but that’s primarily because it’s such a new phenomenon, and it’s only been fairly recently that a possible connection has been made at all.  Also, as I’ll explain later, the federal gov’t is doing everything it can to avoid making the connection between the burn pits and the terrible symptoms and illnesses soldiers who lived by them are experiencing.  So they haven’t funded and started the necessary research on this issue that should have been done years ago.  However, there has been at least one study providing direct evidence that chemicals from the burn pits that are inhaled by our soldiers cause damage to the lungs and immune system. There is also evidence that the burn pits are negatively affecting the health of the civilians living near them, which I’ll touch on later.  I believe this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It’ll most likely take decades before we can truly know all of the consequences that will be a result of exposure to these harmful compounds.  However, there’s already more than enough anecdotal evidence connecting the burn pits to serious illness among the troops to justify the DOD and VA to look into this issue and allow the soldiers who’ve been exposed to get treatment for their symptoms.  There are many stories like Melissa’s showing how prolonged exposure to the burn pits has resulted in serious and often debilitating sickness for these vets.

But instead of trying to get to the bottom of this issue, it was discovered that the military was covering up the potential link between the burn pits and health problems associated with them such as pulmonary, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and neurological illness.  For years they assured the public that there were no health risks to being exposed to the burn pits, but then an internal memo was leaked that directly contradicted this claim.  The memo shows that the Pentagon was aware of the health risks associated with exposure to the chemicals from the burn pits, but didn’t tell anyone about it, including the soldiers who lived near those pits.

Based on the EPA’s own studies, we know that breathing in air that has a high concentration of small particle pollutants is associated with premature mortality, particularly among people who already have certain health problems, as the memo made clear.  As it turns out, the air at the base in Bagram, Afghanistan had more than three times the amount of small particle pollutants as standard air.  So we know the soldiers at such bases are at risk.

There are at least three questions that journalists should ask the Pentagon and DOD based on this information:

1) What is the gov’t doing to shut down these burn pits or at least try to protect the soldiers who have to spend long periods of time near them?

2)What is the gov’t doing to collect data on what chemicals are contained in these pits, whether or not they’re carcinogenic, how many soldiers are exposed to them, and exactly how many of them still exist?

3) What is the gov’t doing to help the soldiers who spent time at these bases and developed severe illnesses once they came home?

Our federal gov’t owes our veterans and active duty members of the military answers to these questions.  They must be held accountable, and we shouldn’t rest until we find these answers by any legal means necessary.

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Sadly,  it may have even been the case that Joe Biden’s son, Beau, was a victim of exposure to these harmful chemicals:

“Beau arrived in Iraq the following year, and spent the next several months serving as a Jag officer at Camp Victory, just outside of the Baghdad airport, and Joint Base Balad, nearly 40 miles north of Baghdad.  Though he returned home safely in September 2009, he woke up one day a few months later with an inexplicable headache, numbness in his limbs and paralysis on one side of his body.  Beau had suffered a mild stroke.  His health deteriorated, and he was diagnosed with brain cancer.  Less than two years later, he died at the age of 46.”

The Balad base had a massive burn pit, burning up to 147 tons of waste per day.  This is both shameful and incompetent to the highest degree.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that burning massive amounts of hazardous materials and chemicals in an open flame literally right across from the buildings where soldiers and civilians live could possibly cause severe long term health issues.  It’s the equivalent of using a bong and inhaling hundreds of toxic compounds all at once, and on a daily basis for months on end.

I believe  the two biggest questions that arise from this scandal are the following:   What materials and chemicals are being burned at these pits, and what lies beneath them?  Joseph Hickman, the author of a book on this topic that came out earlier this year, appears to have found the answer.

He did some digging and found this evidence:

“Five of the six bases that saw the worst health cases, such as cancers and untreatable bronchial illnesses, were located on or near documented chemical warfare sites, where chemical weapons were left over from Saddam Hussein’s rule.  Those locations include Mosul, Taji, Tikrit, Tallil and Balad, where Beau Biden spent some time serving.  And of the 112 service members and contractors Hickman found who served at both Camp Victory and Joint Base Balad like Beau, 31 suffered from different forms of cancers and brain tumors.”

These were sites that contained stockpiles of chemical weapons which were blown up by our military, including mustard and sarin gas, both of which are deadly, and were used by Saddam to kill many innocent people during his reign of terror.  The sites for these burn pits should have been tested for any and all traces of chemical weapons, both on the ground and underneath the ground. They were not:

“Retired Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Rick Lamberth, who oversaw construction of some of those military bases for KBR (the company the Pentagon contracted out construction of the burn pits to), said his former employer “knew the ground was hot” (meaning it was contaminated) when they were building bases like Camp Taji, where old chemical weapons stockpiles were later found by the U.S. military.  Lamberth told me that KBR didn’t take any soil samples or test for ground contamination prior to or during construction of the base and its burn pits.  Now, many veterans who served at Camp Taji and other bases in Iraq that were former chemical weapons bases are showing signs of mustard gas exposure, for which the Pentagon has no official explanation.”

The fact that the burn pits were created on sites where chemical weapons had been previously used and/or buried tells us this contracting company was either extremely incompetent, or grossly negligent, possibly intentionally so.  The ground becomes contaminated with those carcinogenic compounds, and when anything on top of them is burned, the compounds are aerosolized, essentially turning them into fine particles that are then inhaled by anyone in range.  This enables them to penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream, causing all kinds of damage to tissue and organs, and leading to the symptoms we see in so many of the troops who’ve returned home sick.  In fact,simply burning metal and plastic alone can release dioxins, which are known human carcinogens.

As far as I see it, our gov’t slapped the troops in the face three times:

First, in many areas they contracted out the burn pit construction to an outside company, who apparently was dumb enough to build them on top of the remains of stockpiles of chemical weapons left over from Saddam Hussein’s regime.  Then, the Pentagon, DOD, and VA denied that there were any health risks associated with soldiers’ proximity to the burn pits, contradicting their own internal memos.  Finally, the VA has refused to admit that the illnesses of the vets, which I’ve described in this diary, are legitimate and thus not worthy of gov’t resources and medical care.

And yet the burn pits are still in use, despite this fact:

“In 2010, the Government Accountability Office found the DOD was not following its own regulations for safe burn-pit operations, and earlier pits were used regularly to dispose of prohibited plastics, paints, batteries, aerosols, aluminum and other items that could produce harmful emissions when burned.”

The DOD knew the military was disposing of prohibited materials in the burn pits but allowed it anyway.  Both the Pentagon and the DOD share responsibility for this-  the former for ordering the use of the burn pits to dispose of waste in the first place, and the latter for subcontracting their management to companies like KBR, who clearly weren’t qualified to undertake that task.

What person or people made the decision at the Pentagon to begin creating and using these pits near the troops after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started?  Why haven’t they been held accountable?   Furthermore, who at the DOD made the decision to hire the contractors?  Why have there been no FOIA requests to get answers to these questions from our gov’t?  I’ve spent a lot of time researching this, and I haven’t been able to find a single mainstream journalist or news organization who’s done any investigation or reporting on this issue.  Once again, the MSM has failed us, and has left it up to concerned citizens to do the research and investigation they couldn’t be bothered to do.

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To those who say we should give the Pentagon and DOD the benefit of the doubt, I would remind them that this isn’t the first time the gov’t exposed our troops to harmful chemicals and then covered up the evidence until they were forced to admit there was a problem.  It’s exactly what they did with the soldiers who were exposed to Agent Orange.  As Lt. Col. Brian Bower said,

“The military response is very similar probably to Agent Orange, which was at first denial, assessment, acceptance of culpability, and treatment. We seem to be going through those same phases now.”

Furthermore, it’s not just our troops who are suffering from this, it’s also the innocent civilians of Iraq and Afghanistan who live within range of the pollution coming from the pits, who have been found by independent researchers to have much higher rates of leukemia, birth defects, and various forms of cancer. It’d be bad enough if the VA was simply incompetent and wasn’t aware of the situation, or even was aware but didn’t know what to do about it.  But the VA is not innocent in this matter.  In my opinion, they have blood on their hands for not only denying the link between exposure to the pits and the health problems of our veterans, but refusing to help many of them get the treatment they need:

“The VA does not acknowledge a link between burn pits and long-term health problems, nor does it provide specialized care, says Torres. And of the 500 people included in Hickman’s burn pit study, the VA denied disability benefits to over 90% of them.”

It gets worse.  A whistleblower from within the VA came forward to testify before Congress and told members of Congress just how blatant the cover-up was and how deep the corruption runs at the VA:

“Dr. Steven S. Coughlin’s charges that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials hid, manipulated, and even lied about research pertaining to Gulf War Illness (GWI) and health problems plaguing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are still causing fallout a month after his stunning testimony before a key House subcommittee.

“The implications of his testimony are profound,” declared Anthony Hardie, 45, a Gulf War veteran who serves on the congressionally appointed Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses (RAC).”

Nobody who’s been following the incompetence and corruption at the VA over the years should be surprised or skeptical of this claim given the fact that the VA has been caught lying about their wait times for veterans with all sorts of mental and physical health problems, and the fact that officials at VA offices all over the country were caught manipulating wait times for veterans in desperate need of care.  Forty veterans at the Phoenix, AZ VA alone died while waiting for treatment for serious health conditions.

* * *

In the case of the burn pits, some of the troops have fought for their right to be treated for the diseases and disorders they’ve experienced after their exposure to the toxins found in the pits.  There was a class action lawsuit created against the contracting firm KBR by one of the soldiers who had his life turned upside down by exposure to these burn pits and the resulting sickness.  But like the VA, the DOD refused to help our troops, as Joseph Hickman, the author of the book I mentioned above, explains:

“Thousands of men and women were getting sick because of their exposure to the burn pits; over the past few years, I’ve spoken with about 150 of them.  The Department of Defense (DOD), however, denied the burn pits were a health hazard, blocked veterans from getting the medical assistance and compensation they needed, and shielded KBR.

Military service members started to become ill with rare and mysterious bronchial diseases and cancers.  These veterans — the vast majority of whom were completely healthy before deploying — came to believe their illnesses were caused from their exposure to the burn pits, but when they sought treatment at Veteran’s Administration (VA) hospitals and filed for disability benefits, the DOD denied that the pits were a hazard, and the VA sided with the DOD.  Almost every veteran who sought benefits based on exposure to burn pits had his or her claim denied.  It is hard to prove a war injury not created by a bullet or grenade.”

 

So what can be done to solve this problem and give our troops the protection and care they need?   As a starting point, I believe the following steps should be taken:

1) Provide masks and other forms of protection to all troops living around burn pits.

2) Do more research on the link between exposure to the pits and the various ailments and diseases associated with it.

3) Find safer alternative ways to dispose of and destroy the wastes of our troops.

4) Have more gov’t oversight and regulations for the existing burn pits to make sure prohibited materials aren’t being burned there, and that the ground isn’t contaminated from chemical weapons.

5) Change the regulations that currently prevent burn pit victims from qualifying for disability and healthcare assistance.

6) Do more research on treatments for the range of symptoms that are exhibited by the victims of the burn pits.

7) Create a voucher system for our vets so that they can have the best healthcare possible and go to any doctor they want, and aren’t stuck in waiting lines at the VA, only to receive low-quality healthcare once they finally get to see a doctor.

Our gov’t is not only failing to protect our troops from the dangers of war, they’re refusing to help them when they come home and are in desperate need of medical care.  This is immoral, and something must be done about it.  We can’t wait for more troops to get exposed to these harmful substances and have their lives ruined before we act.  Call your representatives in Congress and ask them if they’re aware of this issue, and if they are, what they’re doing about it.  Share the information in this diary with any veterans you know who may have been exposed to the burn pits so they can begin to look for the medical services they may need.

Our troops risk their lives to enable us to have the freedoms so many of us take for granted, and live comfortable lives, while they make sacrifices every day so that we can remain safe.  The least we can do is try to take care of them when they come home, and hold our bloated, corrupt, and incompetent gov’t accountable for not doing its job in protecting them and providing the benefits and services they’ve earned. Our men and women in uniform have already done their patriotic duty for their fellow citizens, it’s time we do ours and help them in their time of need.

If you want to contact me or join me in this fight I’m on Twitter (@chrisantenucci).